How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better
Compete only with yourself, demand relentless feedback, and don’t forget to celebrate, says thissports psychologist and executive coach.
Graham JonesUntil 1954, most people believed that a human being was incapable of running a mile in less than four minutes. But that very year, English miler Roger Bannister proved them wrong.“Doctors and scientists said that breaking the four-minute mile was impossible, that one would die in theattempt,” Bannister is reported to have said afterward. “Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing atthe finish line, I figured I was dead.” Which goes to show that in sports, as in business, the main obstacle toachieving “the impossible” may be a self-limiting mind-set.As a sports psychologist, I spent much of my career as a consultant to Olympic and world champions inrowing, swimming, squash, track and field, sailing, trampolining, and judo. Then in 1995, I teamed up withOlympic gold medal swimmer Adrian Moorhouse to start Lane4, a firm that has been bringing the lessonsfrom elite athletic performance to
500 and FTSE 100 companies, with the help of other world-classathletes such as Greg Searle, Alison Mowbray, and Tom Murray. Sport is not business, of course, but theparallels are striking. In both worlds, elite performers are not born but made. Obviously, star athletes musthave some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successfulsenior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence inboth sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head;rather, it is mental toughness.Elite performers in both arenas thrive on pressure; they excel when the heat is turned up. Their rise to thetop is the result of very careful planning—of setting and hitting hundreds of small goals. Elite performers usecompetition to hone their skills, and they reinvent themselves continually to stay ahead of the pack. Finally,whenever they score big wins, top performers take time to celebrate their victories. Let’s look at how thesebehaviors translate to the executive suite.
Love the Pressure
You can’t stay at the top if you aren’t comfortable in high-stress situations. Indeed, the ability to remain coolunder fire is the one trait of elite performers that is most often thought of as inborn. But in fact you can learnto love the pressure—for driving you to perform better than you ever thought you could. To do that, however,you have to first make a
to devote yourself passionately to self-improvement. Greg Searle, who wonan Olympic gold medal in rowing, is often asked whether success was worth the price. He always gives thesame reply: “I never made any sacrifices; I made choices.”Managing pressure is a lot easier if you can focus just on your own excellence. Top sports performers don’tallow themselves to be distracted by the victories or failures of others. They concentrate on what they cancontrol and forget the rest. They rarely let themselves be sidetracked by events outside a competition.World-class golfer Darren Clarke, for example, helped lead the European team to a Ryder Cup victory in2006, six weeks after the death of his beloved wife. Elite performers are masters of compartmentalization.If you want to be a high flier in business, you must be equally inner-focused and self-directed. Consider oneexecutive I’ll call Jack. When he was a young man, wrestling was his passion, and he turned down an offer from Harvard to attend a less-prominent undergraduate school that had a better-ranked wrestling team.Later, after earning his MBA, Jack was recruited by a prestigious investment-banking firm, where heeventually rose up to the rank of executive director. Even then, he wasn’t driven by any need to impressothers. “Don’t think for a minute I’m doing this for the status,” he once told me. “I’m doing it for myself. This isthe stuff I think about in the shower. I’d do it even if I didn’t earn a penny.”